Back to the Movies – A Film Festival’s Cautionary Tales

For this correspondent who felt no pandemic-era desire to set foot in a movie house, this year’s Other Israel Film Festival overcame all caution. At some point you can’t help yourself. Yours truly will be showing up in the company of a full house for the Nov. 4 opening night of the 15th Annual Other Israel Film Festival at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan through November 11th.

Double and triple vaxxed, charging out of our city confinements, this month also brings us DOC NYC, the world’s biggest documentary film festival, live NOV. 10-18 and online NOV. 10-28. Both festivals’ in-person screenings require proof of being fully vaccinated against Covid-19 for everyone over 12, and masks for all in attendance.

More power to the organizers. Isaac Zablocki, senior director of the Carole Zabar Film Center, director of the OIFF, and his team overcame visa issues, vaccination issues, and more for the filmmaker Q&As following each film. Those who can’t make it will Zoom in. 

But this is serious stuff. Don’t expect a festival of unadulterated joy equal to the reopening of Broadway, whose ecstatic audiences from orchestra to boxes to balcony are leaping to standing ovations.

Remorse and regret seep from the screen of the Nov. 4-11 OIFF. Some of it is almost unbearable, especially unearthed interviews and vintage footage. Most shocking, “And I Was There,” Eran Paz’s 2002 cassette footage, filmed as a young IDF soldier, of his comrades throwing Palestinians out of their homes then lounging around the trashed rooms dropping acid. Heartbreaking and intriguing but not ready yet: the 1930s Palestinian footage in “A Reel War: Shalaal [‘Loot’]” from Karnit Mandel. This is the vanished world of young boys and girls at school, daily life pre-State of Israel with even the archives’ collective memory confiscated by the Israeli military. Catch the trailer on the OIFF site. The film didn’t make it to the festival since, according to Zablocki, it’s still in edit. 

But progress is visible in the credits. This year, women directors are more nearly the norm – both Jewish and Palestinian. “Blue Box,” directed by Michal Weits, digs into where the money went that Jews around the world dropped into the Jewish National Fund’s blue boxes. The money purchased Palestinian land to build the State of Israel. Hiding in plain sight, the ignored diaries of Joseph Weitz, the filmmaker’s revered great-grandfather, meticulously record the buying of land, much of it owned by absentee Arab landlords. Vintage footage shows tenant farmer families sent away by bus and on foot. The film’s maps record the growth of Arab-free land, too close for comfort to Judenfrei, despite Weitz’s angst at doing what he felt had to be done to establish the Jewish State.

One documentary-style feature takes on the power of film. Orit Fouks Rotem’s “Cinema Sabaya” tells the cautionary tale of eight Jewish and Palestinian women who are issued video cameras to document their lives. The young Jewish filmmaker instructing them is naïve but ambitious. Beware early warnings: One of the Palestinian women explains to their teacher, “Sabaya” means both a group of young women and, with the change of one letter, prisoners of war.

Palestinian Israeli videographers, free of colonial guilt, seem to do better at outrage. Amazingly, director and series creator Maysaloun Hamoud pulled off “Nafas,” Israel’s first TV series in Arabic with Palestinian actors. With three Palestinian students reinventing themselves in sin city Tel Aviv, you get dialogue like: “Fuck this war. Why can’t we get stoned with clear minds.” OIFF screens three episodes of the show.

Hamoud received death threats and the only fatwah ever issued in Israel for her first feature, “In Between.” The film opened the 2017 OIFF. And two doesn’t make a movement, but Palestinian Israeli singer Mira Awad created Israel’s Arabic-Hebrew TV series “Muna,” which screened at the 2019 OIFF.

See the OIFF site for the wealth of in-person and online Q&As with the filmmakers and free in-person screening of shorts Nov 6.

You’ll  have a larger window of opportunity for DOC NYC for in-person and online festival cinema, with plenty of women directors here, too. Some films I’ll be checking out: The US premiere, in person and on-line of French-Israeli filmmaker Michale Boganim’s “The Forgotten Ones.” Interviews and archival footage document the discrimination against Israel’s “non-white” Mizrachi Jews. Plus American director Julia Bacha’s “Boycott,” documenting the impact of more than 30 states’ anti-boycott legislation penalizing individuals undertaking boycotts against Israel.  And, getting personal, Nira Burstein’s “Charm Circle,” Queens, N.Y., cinéma vérité exposure – complete with music – of her dysfunctional family.

Who couldn’t relate to family dysfunction after a year-plus of Covid confinement?